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KLA Heuristics
KLA Heuristics

Kinesthetic Learning Activities are complex exercises to perform in class. Students' physical participation in the activities gives them unique learning benefits but can also make them complex, time-consuming, and unpredictable. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult for you to thoroughly practice a KLA on your own or even with a small group of friends in order to understand how well it will work with your class and fit with your learning goals.

So, inspired by Jakob Nielsen's Heuristic Evaluation technique for UI usabality testing, we suggest using Heuristic Evaluation for "discount" analysis of your KLAs. Write the KLA up carefully, as described in the KLA Design pattern, and then have 3–5 people unfamiliar with your KLA (but familiar with teaching and learning!) evaluate your KLA using one or both of the following sets of heuristics as a guideline.

Static Heuristics

These are heuristics you or your evaluators can use to analyze your KLA "offline", i.e., outside of class.

1.Achieve your learning goals. It's easy to let a KLA stray from being fun and effective to just being fun. Ensure that the KLA focuses on achieving its learning goals. Check whether there are parts of the KLA that are not learning-directed that could be cut without degrading the quality of the KLA.

2.Make the metaphor clear. Many KLAs include some metaphor between physical activity and some concept you're trying to teach. In the best case, there's a 1-to-1 connection between the metaphor and the activity (e.g., people are nodes, and their arms are the two left and right pointers in a tree). In the worst case, the metaphor is unclear and the students leave believing the wrong connection (e.g., using people as functions, arms as function calls might lead people to believe that you can only call one or two functions, or that recursion can only be done once b/c you point to yourself and then what?). In any case, there will be at least some difference between the physical phenomenon and the concept. Ensure that students understand the strengths and limits of the metaphor, e.g., by making the metaphor explicit and discussing it or by comparing the KLA metaphor and other metaphors/abstractions computer scientists use to explain the concept.

3.Exploit the exercise's physicality. A KLA should excite students about the material or bring it home in a way that paper or video or spoken word cannot. Compare the KLA to similar (and perhaps less time-consuming) alternatives such as handouts, written exercises, programming assignments, etc. Simulations, especially, should exploit physicality since your students could surely see more iterations of a simulation and more diverse starting conditions with a computer simulation than a human one.

4.Keep it short and simple. Is there any way to reduce the length or complexity of the KLA while still achieving its learning goals? Once the KLA is as "tight" as it can be, consider whether its pedagogic benefit worth the class time it takes. Also, will managing the rules of the KLA distract students from the learning goal? If so, perhaps a post-KLA debriefing will help students solidify what they didn't have time to learn during the KLA.

5.Make roles and rules clear. KLAs can be intricate machines involving motion, communication, hidden information, and more. You need to make students' roles and the rules of the KLA abundantly clear for it to run smoothly. Have you provided any necessary introductory description of activities? Are there handouts that would help students understand the activity (now and when they reflect on it later)? Do you need TAs to help you manage the activity? Can you prep some students before class to make the activity proceed smoothly?

6.Involve the students. A good KLA involves students experiencing a physical sensation of participation. In some sense, the "ideal" KLA involves every student actually physically participating; however, students can also participate vicariously if they sympathize strongly with the activity and the actor. Moral: make your KLAs involve as many students physically as practicable, and ensure that students who do not participate directly are drawn into sympathetic participation. (Also, consider that students are likely to sympathize more closely with other students than the TAs and more closely with the TAs than the instructor.)

7.Make students feel comfortable and safe. First and foremost, ensure that your KLA will not harm any students. Throwing objects, twisting people into odd positions, and other such activities may make good points, but set up the KLA so no one will get hurt during the process. Also consider the safety of students' and school property (e.g., laptops and jewelry). Consider cultural biases and physical constraints that may limit students' participation, make them uncomfortable, or alienate or embarass students. (The KLA Design pattern has some tips on this point.) If some students cannot or do not want to participate, will the feel isolated or stigmatized? Finally, consider the KLA's impact on neighboring classes and later classes in the same room. Will the noise level cause disruptions? Will the KLA leave a mess?

8.Plan for smooth transitions. Will the KLA fit well into the flow of class? Do you understand what students need to know/have done before starting the KLA? Will there be an appropriate moment and way to introduce the activity? After the activity is done, can you smoothly transition discussion back to your normal teaching style? Will you and students clearly connect the KLA's lessons to other material discussed in the class? Will it even be clear at what point you can/should end the KLA? If students will be excited, talking, moving around, or otherwise in disarray, have you planned for a cooldown period or some other way to transition to a calmer classroom environment?

9.Be ready for the unexpected. If someone gives a surprising answer, acts in an unusual way, fails to follow directions, or just trips, will your KLA still work? Sometimes small errors will not cause any significant problem in learning. Other times, if a student makes an error it will only affect that students' experience (or perhaps a very small number). If a single error or a small number of errors are likely to ruin the KLA for the whole class, consider whether it's too fragile to be useful. Sometimes, however, errors can be opportunities for greater learning opportunities! (There's a good example in the Counting the Class KLA's use notes where a randomized algorithm went awry but showed some important points about randomization and randomized algorithms.)

10.Accomodate different goals and styles. Try to make your KLA tunable to as many different types of class situations as possible (size, layout, level, age, available time, facilities, etc.) and to learning goals that are closely related to the KLA's specific targets. Even if no one else ever uses your KLA, you might want to use it again in a different classroom or course, you might realize on the spur of the moment that there's a specific topic you want to focus on, or you might simply have less or more time for the KLA than expected. The "variants and extra topics" section of the KLA Design pattern is a good place to handle this.

Dynamic Heuristics

These heuristics are targetted at understanding whether a currently executing KLA is working. They may also help you simulate and analyze the KLA offline.

1.Monitor your goals. Know what your learning goals and the parameters of your KLA (e.g., timing) should be beforehand and check (mentally or explicitly and publicly) several times during the KLA that they're being achieved.

2.Monitor involvement. Is (most of) the class involved (if that was the intention)? If students aren't getting involved, can you lead them by example (do the embarassing thing yourself first) or offer rewards to entice them?

3.Monitor safety and comfort. Are any of the students feeling scared, left out, trampled, or violated? Is equipment and furniture safe?

4.Keep the global picture clear. Can everyone see, hear, feel, and understand what they need to benefit from the exercise? For example, if you're using standing up as part of the exercise, can students at the back or shorter students still see everything they need to see? Check the acoustics throughout the room: a lecture hall may be specifically designed so someone speaking at the front is audible to the whole room while someone speaking at the back is not.

5.Make room for reflection. It's easy to get caught up in the moment in a KLA, but it's your job to ensure that students take the time necessary to reflect on what they've done so that they actually learn! Is this happening throughout (and especially at the end) when it needs to?

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